This week I was on a mission. I needed information—and fast.
Ok, maybe not life or death fast. More like finish-this-project-before-the-deadline fast. It probably would have been possible to figure out the gaps in my knowledge by trial and error, but I didn’t have time to waste.
So I asked for help.
There’s always someone who knows the solution to your problem, but that doesn’t mean that answers come easy. I searched every index and glossary on my shelves with no luck. I read through old notes. Nada. The deadline was coming fast, and I was running low on resources.
So I turned to my last—but hardly least—resource: my online peers. It wasn’t long before I found a wealth of knowledge in the world of tutorials.
If You Teach It, They Will Learn
Tutorials are one of the most undervalued resources. Desperate searchers are quick to check Wikipedia and discussion forums for solutions to their problems. For some reason, few people regularly bookmark sites that offer step-by-step instructions.
What is it that makes people shy away from tutorials?
Most often, the answer is time. Going through a tutorial seems a bigger commitment than skimming the latest wiki update. The truth is that heading straight for a tutorial can save time and energy that you would otherwise have to spend researching.
Tutorials are designed to make a difficult task easier by providing simple instructions for potentially complicated steps. They become scary when the time investment doesn’t seem worth the knowledge offered.
Being an expert at something doesn’t make you good at teaching others.
There are just a few basic requirements to make a good tutorial. Paying attention to the details can mean the difference between providing fast help and wasting someone’s time.
Your tutorial gets the attention it deserves when you give special attention to these four aspects of every good tutorial: language, organization, presentation, and content.
The most obvious requirement for a good tutorial is the ability to communicate effectively.
People want tutorials so they can grasp a process that they don’t already understand. If a tutorial is so full of technical language that the only people who can read it are those who know the process anyway, it doesn’t do anyone any good.
Ever wonder why the instructional “for dummies” books are so popular? They talk to the reader in plain language, one any person can understand. The technical jargon is stripped away.
All that’s left is pure, sweet knowledge.
You know the language of your trade or skill, and your challenge is to find a way to communicate your knowledge in ways others can understand as well.
In other words, know your audience. A group of experienced coders might understand what overflow, float, and the difference between padding and margins are, but those coders aren’t the ones looking for a tutorial on website design.
It takes more time to create a tutorial than it does to work through one. Before you can help others and teach them, you need your own thoughts in order. A tutorial that skips around or leaves information out isn’t good for anyone.
Whether you’re doing a step-by-step video or writing a how-to article, start with an outline or list that helps keep your tutorial clear and organized.
The best way to get organized is to go through the process you plan to teach. Take notes each step of the way. Instead of pulling information from memory, where you’re likely to skip a step because it comes to you naturally, pay close attention to what you’re doing. Try to see the process through the eyes of a first-timer.
Think about what confused you the first time you tried. Jot down the questions you had. Try to remember what tripped you up. Write down the minor steps, even if they seem obvious or common sense to you now.
When you’re done, go through your outline slowly and make sure the process is divided into logical steps. Ask a friend to try it. Test it yourself.
Then test it again (and again) until all the bugs are worked out and the information is crystal clear.
Presentation is the all-important hook that gets your tutorial attention. I’ve seen many tutorials with excellent information that were of such poor quality that learning was a struggle.
If you spent as much time figuring out your lesson as you should have, you shouldn’t waste that effort by offering a final product that doesn’t reflect your knowledge and skill.
Pay attention to details. Fix grammar and spelling. Make sure your formatting is proper. When you have downloads, test them. Make sure all your links are live. If you’re making a video, don’t skimp on editing.
Don’t sabotage good work by offering it on an ugly tray.
Also, make sure that the final formats you use for your presentation are accessible to a majority of users. Not everyone can download large files, and not everyone can view Quicktime or Flash.
You could even post multiple copies of your tutorial in different formats and let people choose what they’d like. Be bold in getting your knowledge publicized.
A good tutorial finds its greatest worth in the quality of information presented. A tutorial can have the best presentation and the clearest language in the world, but if the knowledge within isn’t worth knowing, the tutorial isn’t worth it.
Give viewers an introduction. Tell them exactly what you’re teaching, list what they’ll need to complete the project, and provide a brief overview of the areas you’ll cover. Offer a skill level, if needed. Is this for a beginner, an intermediate, or an advanced user?
If a tutorial ends up being long, break it down into manageable sections. Remember that people want good information, but they want it fast. A good tutorial makes time fly because it’s enjoyable, but aim for brevity without skimping on the important details.
After you have your content, take one last look at it. Ask yourself, will the viewer see immediate results at the end of each step? If the tutorial is part of a series, does each lesson build on the next? Cohesion is an essential part of any written work, but it’s especially important in projects carried out by people who may not understand the value of the individual steps.
A Good Teacher?
Before you start spreading your nuggets of wisdom, ask yourself if you’re the right person to teach the lesson. You may know how to put a pretty background up on a proboard, but does that mean you’re suited to give a lesson on web design?
Tutorials can even help you realize that you don’t know as much about a topic as you think you do – and that lesson is just as important for you as it is the person who needs to learn (from someone else).
If you do feel qualified to teach on the subject, tutorials are a great way to cement your grasp of the process and to spread appreciation for the work that you do. Everyone has something to teach, and for as long as there’s a teacher, there will always be a student waiting to learn.